"A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees," per William Blake. Ain't that the truth! Although listed by barely half of the 95 participating voters, Terrence Malick's polarizing The Tree of Life sits comfortably atop the 2011 Film Critics' Poll. Part Brakhage, part Tarkovsky, part Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, Malick's cosmic family drama handily outpointed its expected challenger, Lars von Trier's Melancholia (No. 3), as well as the surprise runner-up, Asghar Farhadi's Iranian courtroom drama A Separation (No. 2), while Malick himself crushed bad boy von Trier as best director.
Other strong finishers by established favorites were Abbas Kiarostami's Tuscan brain-twister, Certified Copy (No. 4); Raúl Ruiz's epic swan song, Mysteries of Lisbon (No. 5); Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (No. 6); Kelly Reichardt's revisionist Western, Meek's Cutoff (No. 8); and Nicolas Winding Refn's '80s action flick, Drive (No. 9), for which Albert Brooks snagged best supporting actor.
But A Separation, which doesn't open stateside until next week, was not the only sleeper. Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (No. 7) was a movie many critics didn't even see because its distributor seemed determined to turn its Searchlight elsewhere (see Karina Longworth's Top 10 list in this section). Indeed, Margaret was a multiple winner — edging A Separation for best screenplay while copping actress awards for Anna Paquin and Jeannie Berlin. Not quite as obscure, Jeff Nichols' corn-fed Take Shelter (No. 10), with Michael Shannon as best actor, helped close out two critical darlings, Martin Scorsese's Hugo (No. 11) and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (No. 12), not to mention a prominent pair of critics'-circle prize winners, Alexander Payne's classy soap opera The Descendants (No. 15) and Michel Hazanavicius' retro silent The Artist (No. 17).
So what's it all mean? Will The Tree of Life, having taken the Palme d'Or at Cannes and topped the Voice Crix Poll, now complete moviedom's Triple Crown with Best Picture on Oscar night? Stranger things have happened (especially since Tree didn't get a single Golden Globe nomination) but, rather than speculate on the Academy's mindset, let's analyze the poll within the poll — crunching the numbers that separate the movies that were broadly well liked, clustering near the bottom of people's lists, from those that critics really, truly loved. For this, we have the calculus known as the Passiondex™.
Weighted ballots, used by 90 of the 95 voters, award a first-place choice 10 points, second place nine points, and so on. The Passiondex™ is derived by multiplying a movie's average score by a percentage of those voters who marked it first or second or, because passion cuts two ways, declared it the year's worst movie. If the Passiondex™ is applied to the top 10 movies, Tree of Life drops to a temperate sixth place and A Separation to a reasonable 10th, with Melancholia (which garnered far more first- and second-place votes, as well as a nod for worst) the easy winner, followed by Mysteries of Lisbon, Certified Copy, Margaret and Uncle Boonmee. If we open up the top 10 to the 20 highest vote-getters, Melancholia is displaced by The Artist (which boasts three worst votes), and Tree of Life falls to 10th, as Hugo, Steve McQueen's sex-addiction drama, Shame (No. 18) and Jean-Luc Godard's impenetrable Film Socialisme (No. 20) elbow their way into the top 10.
What happens when we open things up to the entire poll? The two Cannes laureates, Uncle Boonmee and Tree of Life, vanish. Applying the Pash across the board yields a surprising result: Moving into first with every single one of its seven voters ranking it first or second to achieve an unprecedented perfect Passiondex™ ratio, the late Edward Yang's 1991 epic youth drama, A Brighter Summer Day (No. 23), which had its first New York theatrical run in November and never played L.A., wins!
Some might call this outpouring of love for a 20-year-old movie a form of nostalgia, but if so, it's nostalgia for what movies can be. Whatever else it is, The Tree of Life is the most blatantly avant-garde commercial release in the 53 years since Stanley Kubrick's similarly divisive 2001. Nor is it the only recent movie aspiring to wow the mass audience with cinematic art. Each in its way, Inception, Avatar and Gaspar Noé's art-house cult film Enter the Void had the same Kubrickian ambition. So, too, the universally beloved 2001 parody that topped the 2008 Voice poll, WALL-E.
As cinema turns inexorably from what we call film, with its traditional basis in photography, to the brave new world of digital image-making, there is, it seems, a new appreciation for the old-fashioned attractions. How to account for the outpouring of love directed at The Artist — a mediocre silent movie that, if nothing else, does evoke the essence of movies before the last technological revolution by emphasizing the eloquence of the image. Similarly, the more overtly cinephilic Hugo revives the primitive magic of George Méliès' paleocinematic trick films by constructing an elaborate 3-D frame for their projection. Incredibly, the Ziegfeld audience with whom I saw the movie actually cheered for Méliès' ancient F/X!
J.J. Abrams' less-loved Super 8 (a lowly 83rd in the Voice poll) is another case. Openly yearning for the Spielberg movies of the Goonies era, it actually celebrated another obsolete format. "There is something odd about watching a movie called Super 8 digitally projected on an Imax screen with 12,000 watts of gut-rumbling Dolby sound," A.O. Scott began his New York Times review. "You might even say it's the subject of the movie."
Absolutely — and that is also the subject of Hugo and The Artist. Welcome to the time machine and the novelty of moving pictures made new!
For me, the most fascinating cinema event of 2011 was that which caused crowds to line up day and night on West 21st Street in New York, and at LACMA in Los Angeles, for a 24-hour gallery installation, Christian Marclay's The Clock. For a few weeks, the hottest movie ticket in several cities was nothing more than the spectacle of time passing — and that spectacle passing for narrative suspense! Composed of a thousand film clips digitally projected, The Clock was not a movie but The Movies — newly reinvented, the triumph of pure cinema for a post-film audience.
To see the full ballots of all 95 Village Voice/L.A. Weekly Film Critics' Poll voters, go to laweekly.com/filmpoll.
Film by the Numbers
Ninety-five print and Web critics from around the country participated in the 2011 Village Voice/L.A. Weekly Film Critics' Poll. Each submitted their choices for the 10 best films of the year, the three best performances in each of the acting categories, and one top selection in every other category. Ninety out of 95 critics submitted a ranked ballot, on which a first-place vote was worth 10 points, a 10th-place vote was worth 1 point, and so on.
To access each critic's individual ballot and all of the data collected in the poll — plus winners not shown here, in categories such as best director and undistributed film — go to laweekly.com/filmpoll.
1. The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick
307 points, mentioned on 48 ballots (available on DVD)
2. A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi
251 points, mentioned on 41 ballots (in theaters Dec. 29)
3. Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier
246 points, mentioned on 34 ballots (in theaters and on video-on-demand)
4. Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
233 points, mentioned on 34 ballots (available on Blu-ray import; domestic DVD coming in 2012)
5. Mysteries of Lisbon, directed by Raul Ruiz
201 points, mentioned on 26 ballots (on DVD Jan. 17)
6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
199 points, mentioned on 31 ballots (available on DVD)
7. Margaret, directed by Kenneth Lonergan
165 points, mentioned on 26 ballots (not currently in theaters; DVD date unknown)
8. Meek's Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt
146 points, mentioned on 22 ballots (available on DVD)
9. Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
140 points, mentioned on 25 ballots (in limited theatrical release)
10. Take Shelter, directed by Jeff Nichols
132 points, mentioned on 24 ballots (in limited theatrical release)
"In 2011's echo chamber of movies celebrating movies (The Artist, Hugo, My Week With Marilyn), only one of them fully functioned as a well-tooled thrill machine on its own terms, and that was Drive. You could pick out the '80s homage stuck between your teeth, or simply savor the perfect action." —Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
1. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
2. Michael Fassbender, Shame
3. Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
4. Peyman Moaadi, A Separation
5. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
"Most Overexposed Actor, Double Entendre Division: Michael Fassbender. Most Overexposed Actor, Non–Double Entendre Division: Ryan Gosling. The Ides of March would have been a lot more plausible — and maybe even more compelling — if we'd learned that Ryan's incongruously credulous PR 'genius' had received a blunt head trauma just before the opening scene." —Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope
1. Anna Paquin, Margaret
2. Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
3. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
4. Yun Jung-hee, Poetry
5. Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
"The not-quite-completed Margaret is Kenneth Lonergan's Magnificent Ambersons, a masterful sophomore effort held down by studio pressure that has kept the director's cut from seeing the light of day (yet). It's a fragmented experience mainly anchored by Anna Paquin's impressive turn as a scowling, confused young woman — one of the most unnerving evocations of teen angst since Thirteen." —Eric Kohn, Indiewire.com
1. Jeannie Berlin, Margaret
2. Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
3. Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
4. Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus
5. Carey Mulligan, Shame
1. Albert Brooks, Drive
2. Christopher Plummer, Beginners
3. Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
4. Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
5. John C. Reilly, Terri
1. The Interrupters, directed by Steve James
2. The Arbor, directed by Clio Barnard
3. Nostalgia for the Light, directed by Patricio Guzmán
4. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, directed by Andrei Ujica
5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog
"Viewing memories, 2011: Kirsten Dunst's Justine watching with deathly calm as her sister makes a frantic attempt to escape planetary doom by car in Melancholia; Jessica Chastain dancing on air in The Tree of Life and facing the tide in Take Shelter; an ex-con confessing to the community activists of The Interrupters that he'd like to return to prison, where life is less boring; Ron Perlman head-butting a demon in Season of the Witch; The Arbor's youngest daughter/abuse survivor recalling bad times in her musical Yorkshire brogue: 'That were mad, that were.' " —Ryan Stewart, Moviemaker
1. Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin
2. Bellflower, directed by Evan Glodell
3. Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish
4. Margin Call, directed by J.C. Chandor
5. The Arbor, directed by Clio Barnard
1. Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski
2. The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg
3. Winnie the Pooh, directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall
4. Kung Fu Panda 2, directed by Jennifer Yuh
5. Arthur Christmas, directed by Sarah Smith
1. Margaret, by Kenneth Lonergan
2. A Separation, by Asghar Farhadi
3. Midnight in Paris, by Woody Allen
4. Certified Copy, by Abbas Kiarostami
5. Weekend, by Andrew Haigh
1. I Melt With You
2. Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star
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3. The Artist
4. The Adventures of Tintin
5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
"2011 has been strong, both in terms of world premieres on the festival circuit and foreign/independent features from 2010, which were reaching North American cinemas for the first time this year. By contrast, we're watching helplessly as the studios perpetrate one of the weakest crops of year-end Oscar bait in nearly a decade — one auteurist triumph (Hugo), two shrug-worthy mediocrities (The Artist and The Descendants) and a bunch of movies based on 'beloved properties,' so focus-grouped that we're all tired of them before they even open. Who cares?" —Michael Sicinski, Cinema Scope/Nashville Scene